The office of the president is a secular office in a secular government. There is not a word in the Constitution that authorizes the president or anyone else in the federal government to make a religious decision.
Why then are both voters and candidates wasting their time talking about religion? The personal religious beliefs of the candidates should be considered irrelevant. Furthermore, people should not forget that there are a lot more professors of religion than practitioners. What a person claims to believe and how that person leads his or her life are often quite different.
Laws are, in the final analysis, words on paper. They cannot and do not control human behavior. If they could, there would be no crimes. Americans, especially politicians, have developed the bad habit of thinking that there ought to be a law to cover every conceivable human action. Consequently, there are so many laws today that no human being can possibly know what they all are. This defeats one of the useful purposes of laws, which is to educate the public.
As for religion, people should recognize that all the world's religions have failed to eliminate sin, and therefore no one should expect the government to do that. Christianity in particular is based on the twin concepts of sin and forgiveness. Governments are better at finding sin than at forgiving.
Religion has a legitimate role in our society. George Washington said religion is the best way known to instill virtue in masses of people. That is job enough for religion, and religion should stay out of politics as an organization. Religious individuals, of course, have the same rights and duties as any other citizen.
Religion itself has enough problems to solve. Christian Zionists, for example, are a heretical cult without any biblical foundation and with a political agenda. Other Christians have perverted the religion into a weekly course on how to be rich and happy. Christianity, in fact, teaches that it is easier to pass a camel through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Militant Christianity is a contradiction in terms.
If you are trying to find someone actually practicing Christianity, whom would you choose — a preacher with a six-figure salary, a limousine, and a private jet or, say, an actor like Brad Pitt, who has committed $5 million of his own money to build homes for people in New Orleans' 9th Ward?
In judging human affairs, always look for actions, not words. What a person says tells you nothing reliable; what a person does gives you a better clue as to what kind of a person he or she is. At the same time, don't forget the dual nature of human beings.
One can find faults with all religions. One should not forget, however, that the same can be said of all secular philosophies, ideologies, and institutions. Nothing human is or ever will be perfect.
As for the presidential candidates, people should be asking not what these people claim to believe about God, but what have they actually done? How do their lives measure up to their speeches? Do they demonstrate a belief in and a concern for the Constitution? Do they have a wide knowledge of the world as it truly is? Are they catering to special interests? Are they independent thinkers or followers?
The presidential race is, after all, a search for a secular leader, not for a pope or ayatollah. The United States is in deep trouble politically, financially, and economically. It will take a smart, sane, and courageous person to get us out. Opportunists and people who sell their souls for campaign contributions may well preside over our national collapse.
Charley Reese has been a journalist for 50 years.